New research suggests a poor diet can wreak havoc on more than a man’s pants size. (Photo by Getty Images)
Guys, you’ve heard the standard advice for protecting your swimmers: Don’t wear tight undies. Keep your laptop far from, well, your lap. Stop smoking ASAP. But there may be an even easier way to shield your sperm — watch what you eat. “We’ve noticed that fertility has been decreasing over the past several decades. And guys want advice to improve upon matters,” said Dr. Ryan Terlecki, director of the Men’s Health Clinic for the Wake Forest University Department of Urology. “Most guys have never even heard that anything in their diet could impact sperm count.”
But the truth is, an emerging body of research suggests that the foods you pile on your plate may play a role in the number of sperm you have (count), whether they’re normally shaped (morphology), and how well they move (motility).
How that does that play out in the bedroom? “Sperm count is, of course, important, because if it’s not there, you’re not going to [biologically] father a kid,” said Dr. Paul Turek, president of the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology. “And I think sperm motility is more important than sperm count.” Although morphology is less firmly linked to fertility, it has been shown in a number of studies to influence reproductive success, said Audrey Gaskins, who researches nutrition and fertility at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Although the research is still new, one thing is clear: The foods that may pose a threat to male fertility are many of the same dietary culprits behind things such as Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease. That means you’d be smart to avoid them, regardless of whether you plan to make a baby any time soon.The following foods might get in the way of fatherhood:
Sure, meat is considered the ultimate man food — but if you eat the wrong kind, your sperm could be compromised. In a 2014 Harvard study, men who consumed the most processed meat — hamburgers, hot dogs, salami, bologna, bacon — had 23 percent fewer normal sperm than guys who ate it sparingly. In another 2014 study, published in the journal Epidemiology, the same researchers found that eating processed meat was associated with lower sperm count.
Interestingly, saturated fat intake — which has previously been blamed for poor sperm quality — wasn’t the nutritional connection. “We didn’t find a link with unprocessed red meat, so it seems to be something that happens in the processing that is detrimental to sperm quality,” Gaskins told Yahoo Health.
One possibility: Processed meats tend to house more hormonal residues than other meats, which could have potential reproductive consequences. “In the U.S., we allow more hormones to be administered to our cattle [than in the European Union],” she said. “So this is definitely one possible mechanism.”
Eat this instead: Want to boost your swimmers? Look to the sea: The same Harvard scientists found that men who eat lots of fish have, on average, a 51 percent higher sperm count than those who barely eat any. This link was strongest for dark meat fish, like salmon or tuna, although white meat fish, such as cod and halibut, had a positive effect, too.
“Dark meat fish have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids,” which have been previously shown to boost healthy sperm, said Gaskins. The extra dose of vitamin D in dark-meat fish may also be a factor.
Whole milk may leave you with a fraction of the healthy sperm you should have. Young guys who eat at least two servings of full-fat dairy — especially cheese and whole milk — per day tend to have fewer motile sperm, according to a 2013 study in Human Reproduction. Don’t blame the cows, though: Pesticides and other chemical contaminants in the environment, which are attracted to the fat in dairy, may be what leads to subpar sperm, the scientists say.
Eat this instead: You don’t have to ditch dairy altogether. Just switch your focus to the low-fat kind: Men who consume a couple servings of low-fat dairy — especially 1% or 2% milk — per day have 33 percent higher sperm counts and more motile sperm than those who eat little or no low-fat dairy, a 2014 study in Fertility and Sterility found.
One explanation: Low-fat milk may boost levels of insulin growth factor-1, a hormone thought to aid the cells that help produce sperm, the scientists say. “It’s not always the sperm themselves [that are affected],” said Terlecki. “Sometimes, it’s the supporting cells — those that create testosterone to nurture sperm development, and cells that guide the sperm toward maturation. We see those cells affected a lot, in terms of compounds that come from the diet.”
That fresh spinach may come with a side of pesticides — and your sperm could be the first casualty: In a study presented at the 2014 American Society for Reproductive Medicine Annual Meeting, which took place this week, men who consumed the most pesticide residues through produce had 64 percent fewer normal sperm and 70 percent fewer motile sperm than guys who took in the least.
Pesticides may throw your hormonal balance out of whack, which can interfere with your body’s production of sperm, said Gaskins. “We’re concerned about low chronic exposure, day after day at a low dose,” she said. “Our body slowly becomes unable to deal with these low-level impacts over time. This slowly leads to destruction.”
Eat this instead: We’d never suggest you eliminate produce from your diet — but you may want to consider shelling out the cash for organic fruits and vegetables, especially when it comes to these pesticide-laden picks: apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, nectarines (imported), cucumbers, and cherry tomatoes. A 2014 Environmental Working Group study showed that these 10 fruits and vegetables have the highest pesticide load.
You booze, you lose — sperm, that is. Drinking alcohol may have a negative impact on sperm concentration and motility, according to a 2012 Brazilian study of men seeking fertility treatments. Why? Downing copious amounts of alcohol may lead to total-body oxidative stress, which is a key cause of male infertility, the researchers say. But one drink probably isn’t a problem: “In moderation, alcohol intake seems to have no effect on semen quality,” Gaskins said. However, as a new Danish study found, modest but habitual alcohol intake — slightly less than a bottle of wine per week — may compromise sperm quality.
Drink this instead: An occasional beer probably won’t do your body any harm, but if you’re constantly sipping on something (besides water), make it pomegranate juice. In a Turkish study, male rats given pomegranate juice on a daily basis experienced a boost in sperm count and motility. The purple juice is a rich source of antioxidants, like vitamin C, and although this was an animal study, past research has linked a high intake of antioxidants in men to better semen quality. “Men who eat a healthier diet with higher antioxidants — particularly from natural foods, as opposed to supplements — tend to have higher motility,” noted Gaskins.
Here’s yet another reason to kick the can: In a new study of 189 healthy young men, published in Human Reproduction, regularly drinking sugar-sweetened drinks — slightly more than a serving per day — was linked to poorer sperm motility. (Interestingly, this connection was strongest among lean men.) Sipping on sugary beverages — soda, sports drinks, sweet tea — boosts your odds of insulin resistance, which in turn leads to oxidative stress than can damage your sperm, the scientists say.
Eat this instead: If you need a shot of sugar, make it the kind found in fruit — not soda. In the Brazilian study, fruit was positively related to sperm quality, although, keep in mind, you should go organic whenever possible (or give your fruit a good scrubbing before eating it).